Kevin Sieff and Steve Fisher, Washington Post, October 18, 2019
Mexican authorities briefly detained the son of jailed drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — and then released the younger Guzmán back to one of the world’s most powerful drug cartels after gunmen took to the streets.
The events Thursday were a remarkable display of the state’s inability to take on organized crime. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador explained Friday that El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán, was released “to protect the lives of the people” after the cartel deployed across Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, and neighboring towns, taking over key highways.
Residents took videos of the chaos in the city, while Mexicans across the country watched online, a live-streamed glimpse into the cartel’s ability to overwhelm the state. The gunmen carried military-grade weapons and sent convoys of trucks into the city streets.
Ovidio Guzmán emerged as a leading figure in the cartel after his father was arrested in 2016. But as the members of the cartel took to the streets, apparently freeing dozens of prisoners and turning the city into an urban war zone, Mexican authorities decided to release him.
López Obrador confirmed that the security forces had attempted to arrest Guzmán using an arrest warrant that would lead to his extradition to the United States. He would not say whether the arrest was solicited directly by the Trump administration.
“We don’t want victims. We don’t want a war,” López Obrador said at a news conference, explaining that Guzmán’s release was reflective of his administration’s strategy not to use force against the country’s major criminal organizations.
Culiacan in northwestern Mexico is the stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel and where the organization has ample support and firepower — demonstrated Thursday across that city. After Guzmán’s release, residents sympathetic to the cartel celebrated their victory over government forces in a flurry of WhatsApp messages.
The cartel has remained the largest organized crime group in the country for nearly three decades and continues to be the most prominent cartel across major parts of the country. Its biggest rival, the New Generation cartel of Jalisco, is growing fast and has been expanding its territory across Mexico, seeking to fill the void El Chapo left.
Since the capture of El Chapo, the Sinaloa cartel has been led primarily by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and El Chapo’s sons Jesús Alfredo Guzmán and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán.
In February, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against two more of El Chapo’s sons, Ovidio Guzmán and Joaquín Guzmán López, for “knowingly, intentionally, and willfully” distributing drugs to be exported into the United States. They would have to be extradited to the United States to face trial on those charges.
During El Chapo’s trial in New York this year, prosecutors said the sons had played a role in facilitating their father’s escape in 2015 from a maximum-security prison in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico.